Sunday, February 5, 2012

My grandfather's memory

           When I was little, my grandfather told me stories of the war that he survived. I can still hear the tremble in his voice and the far away look he’d get when he told his stories of the World War II in the East. He spoke about selling his wedding band for a morsel of bread, the excruciating Bataan death march, and how he miraculously found a hole from which to breathe in a train packed with dying fellow soldiers. My grandfather fought alongside the Americans. He and his brother were captured by the Japanese army in the  World War II in the East.  That was the last time he saw his brother.
As we sat on the wooden steps of their house, lolo’s stories became grander at times; he saved a young Ferdinand Marcos by shooting from a tree - with his bayonet still attached - before he was shot on his butt and stabbed in the belly.  He had the scars to prove it, which made it difficult to identify what was real and what he made up to impress his wide-eyed granddaughter.
           But not all our shared memories were about the war.  You see, my grandparents took care of me in my younger years, and I have been a lolo's girl ever since.  My fondest memories of him include his magic trick where he would put a beetle to sleep on his palm. He would then tie one leg with a string and when it woke up, it flew around me as if on a leash.  My own personal beetle pet, bug balloon, or whatever you want to call it.
Time passed, I moved with my parents in the city and studied, and my grandfather grew older. Slowly his hearing weakened, but we still told stories from my youth as we sat in the same wooden steps that he himself installed in their home even before my mother was born. In each visit, it was apparent that he was going senile, asking the same questions, which I patiently answered.  It was sad to see it unfold, but he bore it with a smile. Then came the diagnosis: Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, which causes progressive loss of intellectual and social skills. In Alzheimer’s disease, the brain cells degenerate, which leads to memory loss. As lolo’s problem solving ability and coherence came out of focus, my grandfather stopped doing crossword puzzles, his favorite hobby. While he went on with his daily routine, we observed the lapses. He would forget that he already fed the rabbit, so he would feed it again, and again, until his rabbit grew as big as a dog. That was one happy rabbit.
My lola (grandmother) pretended to be irritated with his growing senility and passing tantrums, but she accepted it. Sadly, a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease gets disoriented and loses their sense of time.  So while he always remembered my lola, eventually, lolo forgot the names of his children who he has not seen for a long time, sometimes mistaking me for one of them. We also observed his decreased interest in reading the newspaper, and the quiver in his formerly beautiful cursive handwriting. The deterioration in reading and writing are also tell-tale signs of the disease.  What he enjoyed was telling stories of when he was young: wooing the ladies, and fighting in the war. And I listened; I wanted to hear it all before all was lost from his memory.
While the cause of this disease is unknown, scientists believe that it’s a combination of genetics, lifestyle, and the environment.  Typically, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are indistinguishable from normal signs of aging.  And at present, a definite diagnosis can be determined only after histopathological examinations performed post-mortem. Two types of abnormalities, called senility plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, are evident in brain tissues and passed as hallmarks for Alzheimer’s disease. Plaques are clumps of amyloid protein that interfere with cell-to-cell communication, while tangles are twisted proteins that lead to failure in transport of nutrients and essential materials in the brain. Over time, the plaques and tangles accumulate in the brain parenchyma and artery walls, resulting in the loss of homeostasis in the brain, and yes, loss of my beloved lolo’s memory and coherence.
Exactly, how debilitating is Alzheimer’s disease?  That is hard to quantify, but what most people don’t know is that it can be so devastating that even the olfactory structures can be affected, and the odor threshold is weakened. In layman’s term, Alzheimer’s patients lose their sense of smell. But as other symptoms predominate, patients rarely complain of the sensory deficits they experience.
I would like to think that treatment and cure for this disease are not far off as research funding continues to pour and researches at Pharmaceutical industries are quickly gaining ground.  After all, a staggering 35 million individuals suffer from this disease worldwide - a big red banner asking for help.  A cure would mean that aging people with Alzheimer’s disease will be able to live a normal lifestyle, communicate their needs, be respected by society - as any individual has a right to be.  But most importantly, they will remember the names of their loved ones.
On lucid days, towards the end, lolo’s acceptance of his condition was apparent.  Tears of joy and sorrow flowed freely as he got visits from his children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He passed away one month shy of his 100th birthday.  I can still hear him quote his hero, MacArthur: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.  But I, for one, wish they didn’t have to fade. 

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